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160                                                                                                            B- POLEVOI
would vanish every now and again, was absent-minded
and gave inappropriate answers to questions put to him.
Her maternal instinct told his mother what was happen-
ing to him, and understanding, she forgave him, consol-
ing herself with the adage: the old grow older, the
young must grow.
Not once did young people speak of their love.
Every time he returned home from a ramble on the high
bank of the slowly flowing Volga that glittered in the
evening sun, or through the melon patches outside the
town where on the ground, thick and black like tar,
already lay the vines with dark green web-foot-shaped
leaves, he counted the remaining days of his rapidly
waning leave and resolved to open his heart to Olya.
But evening came again. He met her at the mill gates
and accompanied her to the small, two-storey, wooden
house where she rented a tiny room, as clean and bright
as the cabin in an aircraft. There he waited patiently
while she changed behind the open door of her wardrobe,
and tried to keep his eyes away from her bare elbows,
shoulders and legs that peeped from behind the door.
Then she went to wash and returned fresh, rosy-cheeked
and with wet hair, always in the same white silk blouse
that she wore on week-days.
And they went to the cinema, to the circus, or to the
park. It made no difference to Alexei where they went.
He did not look at the screen, at the arena, or at the
people strolling in the park; he had eyes only for her,
and looking at her he thought: "Now tonight I must,
absolutely must propose to her on the road home!" But
the road ended and his courage failed him.
One Sunday morning, they went for a walk through
the meadows on the other side of the Volga. He called
for her dressed in his best white duck trousers and a
shirt with an open collar which, his mother said, won-
derfully suited his dark, broad face. Olya was ready when
he arrived. She handed him a parcel wrapped in a table
napkin and they went to the river. The old ferryman—a
disabled veteran of the First World War, a favourite with
the small boys in the vicinity, who had taught Alexei,
when^ a boy, to catch gudgeon near the sandbanks-
hobbling on his wooden stumps, pushed the heavy boat